18 Things to Know about Sapa Before you Go

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Things to know before you go sapa, things to do sapa vietnam, what to do sapa vietnam, trekking sapa vietnam, sapa travel guide

18 Things to Know Before you Go to Sapa, Vietnam | Sapa Travel Guide


There will always be places that get under your skin.  Places that you’ll remember and feel like some day you’d like to return. Sapa Valley is one of those places for me.

Sapa is a lovely hill station town in Northern Vietnam near the Chinese border. The region as also known as “the Tonkinese Alps” and it is rich with hill tribe minorities, lush mountain ranges, rice fields and breathtaking views! Once there, you’ll easily understand what the hype is all about.

Shops selling tobacco, trekking clothes and souvenir crafts from the hill tribes will help you burn your dong, but nothing beats a good massage!  The town is completely walkable but if you want to explore outside of town, it’s best to do it by motorbike if you can.

18 Things to Know about Sapa Before you Go

Sapa is a unique hill station town and feels like worlds away from standard Vietnamese lifestyles. So I created a Sapa travel guide for you to plan your Sapa trip.

Things to Know About Sapa Before you Go, sapa attractions, travelling sapa, trekking tour sapa

Things to Know about Sapa: Entering Sapa town, you’ll be greeted by a gorgeous lake town

sapa town

Sapa Town is walkable

1. Getting to Sapa

How to get to Sapa from Hanoi? You have two options traveling to Sapa ~  overnight train or bus.  The train from Hanoi  to Lao Cai station takes around 9 hours. After arriving into Lao Cai station, you’ll need to hire a shuttle bus or taxi to Sapa town. Alternatively, you can book a 2 day Sapa hill tribe trekfrom Hanoi.  I took option but for independent travelers, you

There are sleeper buses that you can book through your hotel from Hanoi to Sapa station. (more information on wikipedia )

How to book train tickets to Sapa

In many regards I might recommend going through a travel agent to get your tickets and there are many in every city! But just be street smart. Vietnam travel tip: One of the trickiest aspects of Vietnam is that there’s an abundance of counterfeit travel agencies.  Usually it’s just agencies trying to skim customers from more reputable agencies. Read more here.

Or you can easily book your Vietnam travel in advance here. I’ve used 12GoAsia for my Thailand trip.

Powered by 12Go Asia system

2. Roads to Sapa are winding, minibus drivers can be reckless

It takes about one hour to get from Lao Cai to Sapa and the roads to Sapa are winding. Both coming and leaving, there was at least one passenger who got sick.  It happens.  Cost for this shuttle bus is anywhere from around $2.50-$3.00.

Tip: Bring a plastic bag for emergencies.

getting to sapa, bus to sapa

Getting to Sapa: Sapa Bus Station

3. A hotel room in Sapa can be spacious

So the thing people say about the challenges of being a solo traveler and having to deal with single supplement fees?..  I finally had to deal with it. All of $3 more.   On D Phan Si/Fansipan Road, I was put in the Cat Cat Hotel.  My room had a shared outdoor deck, an awesome view and I had three beds all to myself. At night, it was especially romantic with the misty mountains outlined against the night skies and… stars!

Check out hotels in Sapa.

cat cat hotel sapa valley

Three beds for only one person– Me! I took the queen-sized bed;

view from my hotel in Sapa, Sapa hotels, where to stay

view from my hotel in Sapa

4. Sapa has a problem with touts

“You Buy” and “Buy from me”,  you’ll hear on the streets.  The Black Hmong women and children are everywhere, stalking tourist hotels to doggedly selling their wares. If you buy from one child, beware… you’ll tempt more children, who want you to patron their products as well.  It’s a problem- the kids come all the way from their villages to sell souvenirs to help support their families and sometimes they sleep in the market or don’t attend school.

Tip: Never answer a tribes person with a “Maybe”, unless you mean it. They’ll follow you until you purchase something. Also, try to be socially responsible with your purchases or gifts. Gifting children with pens can encourage future begging, while giving them sweets is often bad for their teeth. Read more tips for dealing with scams & touts here.


5. Hire a Sapa trekking guide

If you haven’t guessed by reading my Vietnam posts, Sapa Valley is known for its hilltribes and trekking. The hilltribe minorities- Red Dzao, D’zay, Tay and Hmong hilltribe communities- make up the majority of trekking guides in Sapa. They’re showing you their backyard and inside their homes. Sapa trekking trip jobs help employ them.

Unfortunately, these regions don’t have child labor laws and most minority tribespeople stay in the hills vs the cities.  Often, it’s the youth who know English best, so you might get a rather young guide. Mine was 15 years old. It’s ideal to hire directly through a responsible tour companies in Sapa, as the hilltribe will only get a small fraction of that money.

I did not know there were hilltribe tour agencies, so I booked an all-inclusive tour to Sapa through a Vietnamese tour agency in  Ho Chi Minh.

Here’s tour examples:

Muong Hoa Valley 2-Day Group Trek with Homestay- Muong Hoa Valley trek and stay with a Giay minority family. Forest treks in Hoang Lien National Park

Sapa Waterfalls, Trekking and Villages (Half Day Tour)– Sapa Town to visit the Silver Waterfall, Love Waterfall and Tram Ton Pass. Explore the traditional village of Ban Khoan. 4 hour trek.

shopping in sapa, hilltribes in sapa, what to do in sapa, sapa attractions

Red Dzao Hill tribespeople shopping in local Sapa markets

6. Trekking to villages requires a permit

Some villages will have pay stations at the entrance. You will need to show a permit, which is bought in advance at the tourist information center in town. If you don’t have it upon arrival, you’ll need to go back to town to buy one. If you’re with a Sapa trekking tour, it’s likely this is already included in your Sapa trip costs.

7.  Sapa Market is other-worldly with ethnic tribes

A walk along D Phan Si Road, merges you with Sapa Market, a small fresh market of Sapa, where Vietnamese and ethnic tribe locals sell their stock from produce, herbal remedies and meats. The part about Sapa market that gets intense is their meat department. Freshly-killed you’ll find anything from chickens feet, horse legs, even dog. It was enough to give me culture shock with their food.

Herbs sold at Sapa market, sapa attractions, things to buy in sapa

Herbs sold at Sapa market

Sapa Market, Sapa attractions, things to do in Sapa, things to know before you go to sapa, sapa foods, fear factor foods sapa

Things to Know about Sapa:  Sapa Market

8. Shop for Hill Tribe crafts and fabrics

The crafts of the Hmong and Red Dzao tribes are interesting souvenirs to bring back.  The Hmong have a certain flair for fashion, while the Dzao lends better to jewelry. There are two main places you can shop for their products

Above Sapa Market are a couple of co-op shops run by the Black Hmong & Red Dzao. There, they sell bags and apparel of genuine quality and pride. The style and outfits that the Hmong wear are stylish for a hilltribe. The casual Hmong wardrobe has layers such as tux-like vests and wrap-around belts, all designed with a folksy flair .  I decided to buy a Hmong vest and belt

D Phan Si Road Sapa Vietnam, what to do in sapa, things to know before you go Sapa

D Phan Si Road

shopping in sapa, what to do in sapa, things to know before you go sapa

Co-op shop run by hilltribes people

Sapa Market

Sapa Market

Leh. I bought a belt from her and a vest like the one she’s wearing.

9. Shopping at Sapa Square

Sapa Square is a giant market where hill tribe groups turn out to sell their craft work. You’ll find culturally rich objects, clothing and jewelry.  You’ll need to wield your rockstar haggling skills, as these women are serious bargainers. But don’t haggle too much. Generally, the cost is never too high.

hilltribes sapa, shopping in sapa, things to know before you go sapa,

Sapa town’s Main Square: A 5 minute walk to the Main Square, you’ll find hill tribe vendors with crafts ranging from bags, wallets and pillow covers.

things to do in sapa, sapa square, hilltribes in sapa, things to know before you go, sapa

hilltribes sapa vietnam

10. Beware the dye on tribe crafts and clothing

You might notice older Hmong women have blue-stained hands.  This is from the indigo dye they use in their fabric work.   Hmong crafts are beautifully colored, but the dye in them is not set and can stain your clothes or skin.

Tip:  If you buy these products:   1)   keep them separate from your clothes and   2)   set the dye before you wear/use any of them (usually several washes with vinegar and salt should help, but it will take time for the dye to seal itself in the fabric)

black hmong tribespeople, hilltribes sapa vietnam, sapa shopping, hmong dye fabrics, travel tips sapa

Black Hmong elders in their traditional clothes

The elder woman in the middle shows me the hemp string they use to stitch their crafts with. Notice how her fingertips are stained blue?


Why? The moment it gets wet, the ink will stain whatever it touches. Take warning from my travel friend, David (below), a Parisian with a great sense of humor. He wore one of the Hmong belts as a bandana on our trek and proved that indigo dye theory correct.

David’s bandana mark after several scrubbings.

11. Trekking Cat Cat Village

The trek to Cat Cat Village requires a permit from the Tourist Information Center. It’s a leisurely stroll (about 20-30 minutes) down a hill, lined with a cobblestone path going through the village and ending at a waterfall. The village appears idyllic, but also constructed largely for tourists. The Hmong homes residing there are set up as souvenir shops that tourists peruse. 

If you have additional energy, you can take a short trek from the base winding back up to the top.

Cat Cat Village Trek review, Cat Cat Village Trek

Cat Cat Village Trek

12.  Massages are cheap in Sapa

Thailand isn’t the only country to hold copyright on cheap massages. You can find them in Vietnam too and Sapa has a few salon and massage parlors for you to try.  Foot and body massages can be gotten for around $6 /hour and the Vietnamese are experts at making your feet and body feel like it has wings! It’s easy to get addicted.

cheap massages Vietnam, Sapa massage, Sapa trekking tour

Sapa town has massage parlors for those tired feet


13.  P.Cau May road is the main street

As main road that runs through the heart of town, P Cau May houses international restaurants, cafes, clothes, massage and souvenir shops.

sapa town, things to know before you go sapa

Sapa town

14. Sapa Radio Tower has the best view

It’s said to be the easiest hike in Sapa. Getting to the Sapa Radio Tower has a 360 degree view, which is said to be priceless.

15. Bring or buy poncho

It rains and around winter time (November to February) it can get very cold.  If you don’t have one, you can always buy them at a local trekking shop in Sapa.

trekking in Sapa

I bought a poncho from my local trekking shop in Sapa

16. Bring trekking shoes or rent rubber boots

During winter, Sapa rains a lot creating muddy hiking paths. If you’re trekking, you’ll want good shoes. Some paths can be narrow and with the mud, very slippery. Good trekking shoots will give you traction.

More Trekking Tips for Sapa.

17. Buy trekking clothes knock-offs in Sapa.

Sapa houses a many shops, selling trekking clothes from shoes to ponchos, backpacks and apparel. Be aware: many items are counterfeit brands like NorthFace.

Recommended Essentials for Vietnam .  Click to Shop.

18. Variety of Food

Sapa has a wide selection of international restaurants, cafes and street food. P Cau May road  houses many international food joints and the street perpendicular with Sapa Square houses a string of Vietnamese street food, where you sit on plastic chairs, eating on the sidewalk.

The food in Sapa bats eye-to-eye with Hanoi. The food was fresh, made with care and well-flavored.  Below is my lunch at a cafe. Fresh tomato soup made from scratch. Delicious!

A triple decker cucumber and cheese sandwich.Yum!

How to get Sapa bus and train tickets

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Sapa trekking tours

Check out these tour options I’ve curated from GetYourGuide:

Muong Hoa Valley 2-Day Group Trek with Homestay $38– Muong Hoa Valley trek and stay with a Giay minority family. Forest treks in Hoang Lien National Park

Sapa Waterfalls, Trekking and Villages (Half Day Tour)$60- Sapa Town to visit the Silver Waterfall, Love Waterfall and Tram Ton Pass. Explore the traditional village of Ban Khoan. 4 hour trek.

2-day Sapa town, Cat Cat village and Fansipan peak -Ideal for the traveler who is not into trekking but still wants to explore the wealth and hill tribe influence of Sapa.

2-Day Sapa Trek, Homestay, Sleeper Bus  -Best for cultural and active travelers. From Hanoi to La Cai you’ll trek along the Muong Hoa Stream and see H’mong, Dzao and Tay ethnic people. Stay at Tavan village with Dzay people in a basic home and trek through rice paddies, bamboo forest to Giang Ta Chai village. Return to Hanoi. 9km hike

To/From Hanoi: 2-Day Spectacular Sapa Town, Trekking and Bus Tour -A bit of rugged for urban travelers.  Pickup/drop off Hanoi. Visit Sapa town and stay overnight where you can explore food and sights on your own. Treks: Cat Cat Village and Y Linh Ho. 9km hike overall.

3-Day Trek Mu Cang Chai Tour  -Perfect for adventure travelers looking to extend their trek of this epic, active and panoramic region.


Travel Survival Tips for Vietnam (Video)

Related Posts:

15 things to know about Vietnam
Budget tours in Vietnam
5 Risky Things to Do in Vietnam .

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87 Comments. Leave new

  • Avatar
    Jackie Lapeyre-MacNeil
    September 20, 2018 10:22 pm

    Great post, thank you. I love the photos you post to illustrate. I will be going to Sapa in January and cannot wait. Question: one of the photos you posted is by a waterfall. How do you get there in Sapa? I heard about these waterfalls and “roches noires” and I definitely want to see them.

  • Ok… time to not sound completely up my own backside.

    While I see where you’re coming from, in terms of not giving the children gifts, personally, I feel it can only make a positive difference if you do give a few of them some pens/notebooks etc, as you’ll know they’ll, hopefully get to keep them, and be able to use them when they have the free time.

    I gave a few of the children a few pens each, a couple of notebooks, and some colourful post it stickers this evening, when I got really down about their situation. Who knows. Maybe, when they have the free time, it might inspire them to write. Everyone has to start somewhere. While I agree that donating to charities aiming to help these people is always a good idea, but why not do both things? Those bits and pieces cost me about £10. I won’t miss that amount, and it might make a difference, even if only a small one 🙂

    • @Christian Thanks for sharing your perspective. I absolutely know where you’re coming from and it’s a gray line as to how you see “responsible tourism”. I thought pens and notebooks were harmless and encouraging too. Until I started learning more about responsible tourism and our impact as travelers. Maybe a pen is good. But when you hear children go from begging for money in one country, to begging for pens, while hounding your steps, it’s shocking. Especially when the pen-pen-pen follows you through different countries. You know its the result of a traveler givign a child a pen and it creating a different beggign currency. And maybe a pen can encourage learning. But it also encourages the assumption that ALL tourists have something to give if you beg.

      Some beliefs around responsible tourism would say, giving impoverished people handouts without work or merit encourages an equally bad habit of begging that the community then, has to deal with. Tourist actions are short term, we feel happy and proud to have made a “difference” (so we think), but those actions can create a long-term problem the community has to clean up and we’re not seeing the footprints we’ve left behind.

      You are looking forward at the potential for good your action has… this is good. Sometimes, there’s one more step that we all miss.. a habit that impacts the community in the long term. That’s what responsible tourism strives for. My idea is to tell travelers to be thoughtful of the consequences. Like overtipping… vs tipping within the margin of the country’s economy.

      You can take this idea or leave it. It’s certainly a gray area of whether as tourists, we’re helping or hurting an environment and peope we love. =) . When we walk away, most don’t look behind.

  • Hi – does one have to trek or are there options for those who have difficulty walking? Can one, for instance, rent a car and a driver to take one to the places you want to see?

  • Thanks so much for the information. We are actually on a Sleeper Bus as I write this, and on our way to Sapa for two nights. We made our own arrangements for this leg of our trip. We wanted to try find some info about Sapa on our way, and found your blog. Great info and photos. Nice job!!!! It will be a great help for us. We are spending a month in Indochina. So far we’ve visited the south flying in to HCMC then to Cambodia. After that to Hanoi. We were not crazy about HCMC but liked Cambodia. We also prefer Hanoi over HCMC. If we return we will definitely fly into Hanoi. After Sapa we are off to Luang Prabang in Laos. We’ve heard good things so we’ll see. After that, to DNA Nang and Hoi An for a week then back to HCMC for a night and back to the States.

    At this point in our journey we would have to say our preference would be Thailand and Bali, which we’ve visited multiple times.

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing your experiences and suggestions.

    Safe travels to everyone!

    Lou and Carol
    San Francisco

  • i am planing to go Sapa this Christmas with my husband n 2 kids ( 16yr & 18yrs)
    we have never do trekking tour. thinking to have a try but not sure whether can take it. Is that must hire a guide or arrange by homestay owner ?
    which way is better for going Sapa from Hanoi – by train or bus ?
    As we will go hanoi and later transfer to Bangkok. Wonder how to bring along the luggage if homestay. is that convenience to bring along the lugggage.
    is that must follow a tour or i can buy train tkts online directly.
    as i search from the website, seem fun to stay at town ctr. we only have max 2 night in sapa . can you pls give me some guide – 1 night hotel stay & 1 night homestay ?

  • […] I or should I not go to Sapa? That’s not even a question if you enjoy hiking, cooler weather, and a whole different […]

  • Quite comprehensive guidance. Thank so much!
    Sapa is a beautiful gem in the north of Vietnam. However, cause of the bloom of tourism and location bordered with China, most hand made products are from the other part of the Lao Cai port and the local tribe vendors often bother visitors. Anyway, this would not ruin the attractiveness of Sapa. Should be in to-do list 🙂

  • Just for further info there is a local red and yellow bus from the Lao Cai bus station to Sapa. Mini busses and taxis are expensive but the local bus is just 30.000. if you arrive by sleeping bus this fare should be included in your ticket from Hanoi or Halong but if there is confusion just pay it as it’s cheap anyway.

    Also you can walk from sapa to the cable car it is less than 3km but is uphill. If you have a medium level of fitness you’ll be fine. No guide or taxi required.

  • Great info here, thanks!

    Question: Is motorbiking up and down the Sapa mountainside in April/May too dangerous (I’ve done it, but minimally)? The Lonely Planet tour book seems to think it is kind of ominous. I rented a motorbike in Hoi An last Spring and was perfectly comfortable. Then again, that was a pretty flat place.

    I don’t mind hiring a guide, but if I’d like to consider a mix of guided tours and solo exploration.


    • I’m here at the moment, lots of Westerners getting around on bikes but the roads are really bad and potholed from what I’ve seen so far. Make up your mind when you get here, there are plenty of willing bike owners to take you around and they are used to the road conditions.

  • hi.. thanks so much for this helpful information.. Question: I have a month total (january) and ‘m flying in and out of Hanoi..Do you have any tip as to whether I do Sapa Tour at beginning or end of my visit..? The far end of my journey will be Angkor Watt in Cambodia… was thinking I’d fly down there and work my way back South to North. Thanks!!

  • Great post! I will be visiting Sa Pa this weekend, so thanks for the advise. Just wanna comment on the post, you should have put a picture from Sapa radio tower. You mentioned about it having “the best view”, but it is like the only thing that has no picture. heh.

  • Sapa is wonderful. A trekking is definitely a must! But i agree, the locals harrassing you to buy from them and their children was very very annoying. It made me not walk through town too much.

  • Avatar
    Backpacker Luke
    October 7, 2016 3:38 pm

    Tour guides get ripped off if you do it through an agency in Hanoi. Ours was paid 80,000 VND for one day, which equates to 1% of the total amount our group paid!

    The best way of ensuring that the locals get the money is to book directly with them where possible. I know one woman called Xuthao Xuthao (she’s on Facebook) who is looking to set up her own homestay business, if people try to contact her she’ll be able to advise the best options 🙂

  • Very informative and useful postings indeed.

  • it a great information, thanks for your post !


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